Gratitude first: thank you to the community of Kangiqtugaapik [Clyde River] and the Government of Nunavut for welcoming us in uncertain times.  Thank you to Leeno Apak and Jaypiti Inutiq for keeping us safe, to Stéphane Caron and Louis André Grégoire for keeping us flying, and to Patrick Graillon, Caroline (Kaalai) Ipeelie, Leesee Papatsie, and Alan Cormack for making things happen. Back in Gatineau, we are grateful to Lyndsey Sharp, Jennifer Doubt, Troy McMullin, and Cecelia Eason. This fieldwork was conducted in partnership with Nunavut Parks and Special Places and in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada.

Three clusters of white-pink flowers topped with yellow anthers are growing from a plant with thick green leaves on the tundra.
The pale white-pink flowers of Marsh Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum subsp. decumbens) shine in the sun in Atagulisaktalik. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Maybe you know the feeling? Your breath is ragged, your legs are burning, your pack is tugging at your shoulders, but then you crest a hill and suddenly the horizon leaps away. Or maybe you’re sitting in a helicopter or plane, feeling the floor pitch under you as you slide into the sky. Or maybe you know the excitement of finding an elusive plant species underfoot—the greatest thrill of all! 

A mountain range in the Canadian Arctic. Several large peaks tower over the scene on the right. In the foreground, dark talus rocks have tumbled down a gentle slope.
Towering massifs rise over Stewart Valley, in the western part of Agguttinni Territorial Park. image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

OK, so maybe that last part applies mostly to my colleagues and I, but all the same, the memories of past travels definitely seem stronger as you look forward to your next trip. As the museum’s botany team gears up for a new summer of work in the lab and in the field, we are also continuing to work through the plants and lichens we collected in Agguttinni Territorial Park on Baffin Island, Nunavut, in summer 2021. Identifying and processing these specimens will help museum scientists and park managers quantify the biodiversity of this protected area, and working with the specimens every day keeps those field memories fresh. 

While the story of any field season never begins with stepping on a plane, our 2021 collecting trip didn’t even begin with our regular touchpoints of permit applications and gear prep. For me, it began with a shot in the arm at an Ottawa arena. By following safety protocols set out by the Government of Nunavut and the museum, our Ottawa-based team—Lynn Gillespie, Geoff Levin, and myself—prioritized safety above all else during the pandemic. Several weeks later, we caught that northbound flight, and after a stopover in Iqaluit, arrived in Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River). After meeting up with the last two members of our group, Jaypiti Inutiq and Leeno Apak, we packed ourselves and our gear into a red helicopter and made the first of many hops into the park. 

Steep mountains rise on the left over a deep blue fiord on the right. The mountains are topped with large white glaciers, one of which is flowing down toward the sea.
Steep mountains and deep fiords are a common sight along the coast of Agguttinni Territorial Park. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Over the next five weeks, we established four temporary base camps across the park and fell into a comfortable rhythm. From our temporary home on the tundra, we would walk or fly out across the land searching for habitats that could harbour different plant and lichen species. We collected a representative specimen of all the taxa we encountered to document the botanical diversity in the park.  

A close-up of a grass flowering spike in the Canadian Arctic. Small feathery stigmas poke out between dark purple glumes.
Hartz’s bluegrass (Poa hartzii) is a species normally found in the High Arctic or the western Canadian Arctic. Our team found one population of this species in the park. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 
A close-up of a sedge inflorescence (flowering spike) in the Canadian Arctic. The centre of the image shows two clusters of oblong sedge fruits arranged on a green stem.
The inflorescence (flowering stem) of the sea sedge (Carex marina). Our team’s collection of this species fills in a gap in its collected distribution on northeast Baffin Island. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

By the end of the trip, our team had walked over 230 km and climbed 770 floors (the equivalent of climbing Chicago’s Willis Tower 7 times). These hikes took us through spectacular mountain passes (like Atagulisaktalik where large granite peaks tower overhead as spongy moss springs under your feet) and through sandy, rich river valleys at the heads of long fiords. Helicopter trips brought us to interesting habitats farther afield, from the gravelly plains at the base of the Barnes Ice Cap to sandy, wave-lapped beaches on the shores of Baffin Bay. 

A close-up of a flower on the tundra. Two purple stems are growing from oblong green leaves at the base of the plant. The stems are topped with two white-purple, inflated flowers glowing in the sun.
The Arctic catchfly (Silene involucrata) catches the sun’s light on a gorgeous day in Atagulisaktalik.  Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 
Three saxifrage flowers peeking out from between two tan boulders on the tundra. The flowers have maroon centres with white-pink petals and are emerging from a cluster of green lobed leaves.
The tiny flowers of Arctic saxifrage (Saxifraga hyperborea) poke out from under a rock near the Barnes Ice Cap. This was one of the only vascular plant species found near the edge of the ice cap, indicating a relatively recent succession. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

In camp, sustained by tea, coffee, and delicious Arctic char, we alternated between the necessities of living (cooking, dishes, staking out your tent in fierce winds, etc.), and pressing our collections to create two sets of preserved specimens: one for Nunavut Parks and one to deposit in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada.   

A landscape scene of a field camp in the Arctic.  In the foreground, an orange bubble tent stands staked out on the tundra. Several smaller tents recede into the distance, while a towering mountain can be seen in the background.
Our team’s first field camp in Atagulisaktalik, in Agguttinni Territorial Park. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Those 1,000+ specimens, the ones we are poring over now as we write a synopsis of the park’s biodiversity, include over 800 vascular plants (those with roots and shoots), over 150 lichens, and a sampling of small and beautiful Arctic mosses. These include voucher specimens from a community open house and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit workshops we participated in back in Kangiqtugaapik. Facilitated by Caroline (Kaalai) Ipeelie from the Government of Nunavut, these workshops brought together Elders from the community to discuss their deep knowledge of plants in the park, which will guide Nunavut Parks with management and interpretation in Agguttinni. 

A close-up of an Arctic lichen. An orange mushroom grows from soft moss in the centre of the image. Below the mushroom, several blue-green flecks interspersed in the moss make up the lichen thallus.
The Arctic mushroom scales lichen (Lichenomphalia hudsoniana) is one of few lichen species which forms a mushroom – the orange structure above the small green lichen body (the thallus) below. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 
A mat of thick moss stems is growing on wet tundra. Above the moss leaves, slender orange stalks are rising, topped by narrow capsules full of spores.
This hooked scorpion moss (Scorpidium scorpioides) with its jewel-like translucent leaves is one of the bryophyte specimens collected in the park. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Now back at the museum’s research facility in Gatineau, these specimens are in the capable hands of our collections team and co-op student Cecelia Eason, who is mounting and imaging them so the specimens and data can be mobilized for multiple research projects. In the future, anyone interested in the biology of this unique and special protected area will be able to learn from these flat plants and the labels attached to them. Working with these specimens now, I’m easily transported to the recent past, where my mind’s eye takes me to vast fiords, sinuous eskers, and steep mountains—the memories of a time well spent with amazing colleagues. 

An image of a snowbed willow growing on the tundra. The leaves of the willow are turning orange and are interspersed with bright yellow-green mosses.
As August drew long in the park, our team was treated to fall colours on the tundra, like the bright orange leaves of the snowbed willow (Salix herbacea), the smallest willow species in the Canadian Arctic. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature